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Will Downtown Plan move forward today?

Thursday, March 12, 2009 by Austin Monitor

A proposal to spend $841,860 on the next phase of the Downtown Austin Plan could run into trouble at today’s City Council meeting. The two members of the Council who are running for Mayor both said Wednesday they have concerns about allowing the ROMA Design Group to proceed to Phase II of the project, which will involve drawing boundary lines for separate districts within the downtown area, identifying goals for each of those districts, and writing an overall master plan to guide development in downtown Austin.


The Council had previously approved $600,000 for the first phase of the study. “I’ve been a little uncomfortable with the study all along, because it just seems to keep growing in cost…every time we hear something about it, it’s a few hundred thousand dollars that we’re adding to it,” said Council Member Lee Leffingwell. “I have some serious questions about whether it does make sense, and I’ve already flagged that item for special attention. My pre-disposition is that I’m very likely not to support that item.”


Leffingwell also noted that the cost for both phases of the project would total $1.4 million, roughly the same amount estimated for the initial consultant to launch a new citywide comprehensive plan. “I think there’s a serious disproportionality there,” he said. “My question is, is downtown not part of the city? Can’t we combine these two and achieve some efficiencies?”


Leffingwell made his remarks following a mayoral candidate forum hosted by the Austin Board of Realtors, attended by both Council Member Brewster McCracken and Carole Keeton Strayhorn. McCracken also said he would need more information about the proposal. “We definitely have some questions to ask such as…what are the services we’re receiving in return for these funds? Also, are these funds being paid for out of capital budgets, such things like engineering services, economic services to help us create new job opportunities? That’s one of the questions we have to ask,” he said. Funding for the project is coming from Capital Metro, which remits a portion of its sales taxes to the city to fund transportation and planning projects.


While McCracken and Leffingwell both want more information about the proposal on today’s agenda, mayoral candidate Carole Keeton Strayhorn said on Wednesday she had all the information necessary to make her decision. “We absolutely do not need to be spending any more dollars on outside consultants to tell us to do what we must do. We need to quit studying, start acting,” Strayhorn said. “We don’t need any more dollars spent on outside consultants. It’s outrageous what they have done today.”


Supporters of the plan are optimistic the staff will be able to address McCracken and Leffingwell’s concerns. Council Member Sheryl Cole pointed out that the money could not be diverted from the project to cover other items in the general fund budget such as overtime for firefighters or a new cadet class for the police department. “The funding for this comes from the quarter-cent sales tax from Capital Metro. We cannot use this funding for the General Fund; we cannot use it for parks, police, libraries,” she said. “We can only use this money for planning.”


“Downtown is the economic engine around which our local economy thrives. We must continue to invest in it,” she added.


Council Member Randi Shade seemed inclined to move ahead with the plan, although she, too, wants to hear more about the associated costs. “I have some questions that need to be answered, and I need to hear from some of the people who are signed up on the pros and cons,” she said. “What would happen if we stopped the plan midway through would be important to consider. I expect we will have some lively conversation.”


Some of the downtown residents who have been the most active in pursuing the plan are optimistic the Council will move ahead with the project. “The Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association absolutely thinks the Council should go ahead on Phase II,” DANA member Marshall Jones told In Fact Daily. Although the city may be experiencing a slowdown in the number of new development projects, he said, “now is not the time to stop investing in our urban core and our CBD.” While the cost of the Downtown Austin Plan is comparable to the initial outlay for the citywide comprehensive plan, Jones said, “they’re completely separate plans. The comprehensive plan is a policy review, it doesn’t have anything to do with the actual Downtown Austin Plan…which would address compatibility standards, districting, and a parks master plan.”


The Council authorized hiring ROMA for the first phase of the downtown plan in October, 2006 for $600,000. According to city documents, on Feb. 28, 2008, the City Council authorized spending an additional $250,000 for transit and transportation planning. One month later, the Council authorized $200,000 for ROMA to study affordable housing and density bonuses in the downtown plan area.

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